It’s Time to Reform Our Scandal-Ridden Federal Prisons - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
It’s Time to Reform Our Scandal-Ridden Federal Prisons

Since 2019 more than 100 federal prison workers have been arrested, convicted, or sentenced for crimes. It is a stain on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that some people who are supposed to be “correcting” the behavior of inmates have instead become criminals themselves.

It is shocking to read the number of crimes by BOP staff uncovered by an Associated Press investigation. The AP found that Federal prison workers in nearly every job function have been charged with crimes, including:

  • Rape
  • Murder
  • Smuggling drugs and weapons into prisons
  • Stealing government property such as tires and tractors
  • Filing false reports
  • Inciting violence
  • Lying
  • Stalking, and
  • Taking bribes

The Mission Statement of the BOP clearly states that the purpose of federal prisons is “to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.” When some of the staff running prisons are also criminals that important goal is made much more difficult to accomplish.

Just last year, a warden at FCI Dublin prison for women was charges with groping an inmate. He was also indicted for having two inmates strip naked in front of him, as well as keeping pictures of a naked inmate in her cell. In addition he was charged with intimidating one of the victims out of reporting his abuse. He told her he could not be fired because the person assigned to investigate misconduct allegations was a close friend of his.

The officers were not indicted for the rapes. Nor were they fired. Instead, the Bureau of Prisons simply transferred the offending officers to other prisons. Nothing to see here, folks.

Another BOP employee at the same women’s prison was arrested a few months ago for forcing two inmates to perform sexual acts with him. It appears the staff at FCI Dublin believes in free love — literally.

I have some personal experience at the prison at Dublin. I was imprisoned at the prison labor camp attached to the Dublin prison complex and across the street from the women’s prison. I observed many instances of similar crimes and corruption as those found by the AP.

On one occasion I had to return my tools to the prison tool shed. As I walked up to the Dutch door the two inmates assigned there told me that just minutes before I arrived something very odd happened. The foreman of the landscape crew had entered the shed and told them to go out back in the maintenance yard and pick up cigarette butts. The reason it was so strange was that there were many other inmates whose job it was to police that camp for butts. By sending them away from the shed the tools would be left unguarded, a major violation of BOP rules.

However, inmates knew better than to refuse an order from their supervisor. They dutifully went out back and “drove the Cadillac” — prison slang for using the little dust pans on a stick like those used at Disneyland. After a few minutes of butt patrol, they saw something being loaded something into the back of his pickup, which then drove off. With the supervisor gone they went back to the tool room. It was immediately obvious that the brand-new Skilsaws they had just mounted on the peg board that morning were missing. When the tool shed crew made the required report of the missing saws, it was reported as “inmate theft.”

The other inmates knew I had been a California state official. They often came to me to tell me of the underhanded skullduggery the staff was pulling off. Just before the end of the fiscal year, all BOP institutions do an inventory of all the prisons’ equipment and supplies. Every single item has to be accounted for. If an item is missing all hell breaks loose.

My fellow inmates told me that a day or two before inventory I would see inmates running from the Supply Room to their dorms with stacks of underwear and socks to replace the threadbare skivvies that looked more like cheesecloth having been worn by innumerable inmates before them. And just as my compatriots had predicted two days before inventory inmates were scurrying from the Supply Room to their lockers with their arms piled high with brand new socks and underwear.

Later that afternoon a surprise shakedown of the inmate lockers was called, and all the pilfered items were confiscated. The longer time inmates explained that this was an annual scam: as the staff performed the inventory, they “discovered” that well over a thousand items were missing from the Supply Room. The staff, being excellent amateur sleuths, immediately knew who had stolen the items. It was obvious the inmates that were responsible for the large loss of inventory. The prison staff had developed a clever (and criminal) means of covering up the theft of all the items the staff had pilfered for their themselves and their families during the entire preceding year.

When I have related these incidents, some ask why I didn’t report these crimes. Though they are sincere, they are naïve about the total control the BOP has over inmates during their time in prison and for years after of supervised release. As one BOP staffer who raped an inmate hissed in her ear as he finished his vile assault, “Don’t you dare report this. Who are they going to believe, you a common criminal or me an upstanding officer?”

As for sexual assault of the female inmates, I was told that prior to my arriving at the camp several officers were handcuffed and walked out the gate in full view of the inmates in the women’s prison and the men’s camp. Those officers had been caught trading contraband (cigarettes, drugs, etc.) in return for sex with the women inmates.

For much of my time at Dublin I was assigned to the garage. It was about 15 feet from the chain link fence separating us from the women’s prison. On our breaks we would talk to the women through the fence. Those women told us chapter and verse of the sex for contraband going on in the prison. They told us that despite the officers being caught in flagrante delicto, the BOP swept the scandal under the carpet. The officers were not indicted for the rapes. Nor were they fired. Instead, the BOP simply transferred the offending officers to other prisons. Nothing to see here, folks. Just move along.

I want to be clear: the crimes I have described here and those uncovered by the AP are committed by a tiny portion of the BOP staff. I have worked with many prison professionals who have dedicated their lives to sending prisoners home better than they entered and preparing them to be contributing members of their communities. That is why the failure of the BOP to cull their ranks of the bad apples is so destructive. This failure tarnishes the reputation of all the good guys.

Because I have related some awful behavior by BOP officers, I want to highlight the work of a true corrections professional, Art Beeler, who served as Warden of the Butner Federal Prison Complex in North Carolina. He is one of the finest people I have ever met. Art believes that an important part of a warden’s job is helping inmates prepare to find work after release, and he made that happen on his watch at Butner.

The prison had plans to build an auto repair facility to teach inmates marketable skills. In other BOP prisons job training programs focus on training inmates for jobs which are not available and are taught by staff with no experience in the private sector. Imagine the disappointment of offenders with a certificate for jobs that don’t exist.

Art wanted to establish a program that was different from the typical BOP job training. He sought a partner in the private sector that would train the inmates for jobs that were open to ex-offenders. Warden Beeler reached out to Meineke Discount Mufflers and found that Meineke was having a hard time finding people who wanted to “get their hands dirty.” Art’s proposal was attractive to Meineke. The concept of having a “captive” work force eager to be trained by “real world” teachers was a win/win/win for the prison, the company, and the inmates. Meineke even g­uaranteed a job for any offender who successfully completed their training course!

Warden Beeler had to navigate through strong resistance from the BOP bureaucracy. The BOP does not value innovation and that makes it tough for creative wardens. However, Art persevered, and the program was established and was a resounding success. The inmates left prison with real jobs and Meineke had a steady flow of well-trained workers. This was an ideal partnership between a government agency and the private sector.

But there is a sad ending to the story. When Warden Beeler retired in 2009, the BOP eliminated the program. Meineke was eager to continue the very successful partnership. But the higher ups decided the program did not fit in their view of an appropriate activity for federal prisons. That is tragic. We need more visionary leaders like Art Beeler whose vision established a job training program that made our communities safer by releasing offenders trained for in-demand jobs so they could be providers for their families and good neighbors in the community.

The BOP fails in another important way — according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 49.3 percent of federal prisoners are arrested within eight years of release — a failure rate of almost half.

The BOP is tasked with sending home prisoners prepared to be good neighbors. The safety of our communities depends on this. We don’t expect every prisoner to be transformed. But Americans should be able to count on prisons that don’t fail almost half of the time. Would you continue to go to a hospital that repeatedly sent you home sick? Prisons are the only institutions that grow by failing. Why aren’t our legislators demanding better results?

Fortunately, a pair of Senators have formed the Senate Bipartisan Prison Policy Working Group. Senators Mike Braun (R-IN) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA) will “look under the hood of the BOP” to develop bipartisan proposals to improve safety inside prisons — for staff, volunteers, and inmates — and reduce the high recidivism rates that lead to new crimes, more victims, and higher costs for law enforcement, courts, and prisons.

We at the ACU Foundation look forward to working with Senators Braun and Ossoff, and the working group so that staff, inmates, and volunteers are safe inside our prisons, and that offenders are prepared to become contributing members of their communities. We admire the Senators for undertaking this important work. It is long overdue.

The Roman poet Juvenal wrote, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will guard the guardians? If prisons are to send inmates home better than when they went in, the ethics of the corrections profession must be restored. Just as we hold offenders accountable for their crimes, we should also demand accountability of the prison bureaucracy. Real change requires more than a change at the top. It means a fundamental change in the BOP culture. It needs a top-to-bottom housecleaning.

Pat Nolan is the Founder of the Nolan Center on Justice at the American Conservative Union Foundation. He received the Victims’ Advocate Award from Parents of Murdered Children. He served as Republican Leader of the California State Assembly from 1984 to 1988.

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